Conservation vs. the American Dream
By Andrew Bernstein (San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 2001)
Vice President Cheney's recent proposals on energy come amidst cries from religious and political leaders that Americans have a moral obligation to conserve--to wash our clothes less often, to replace our comfortable SUVs with "econoboxes," to turn off our air conditioners and rot in the heat.
What motivates these pleas for conservation? Is it that our religious and political leaders fear that without their help we cannot balance our checkbooks? Is it that they would like us to save our money for more important expenditures? Of course not.
Americans are being asked to conserve as a form of sacrifice: "We as humans are morally responsible to share [the earth's] bounty with . . . the poor and rich, the human and nonhuman. Every little bit we waste is a bit we can't share," states a California religious leader.
Conservationists do not advocate conservation as a way of bettering our lives or as a way of lowering the cost of energy (for which increased production is the solution). Rather, they urge Americans to do with less, to lower their living standards, to live in a self-denying manner. Conservation is essentially the moral code of self-sacrifice applied to current energy problems.
President Bush agrees with this approach, ordering energy conservation at federal offices in California and endorsing a range of energy saving tips for homes, work sites and industrial plants.
But in fact, Bush and Cheney and Gov. Davis should repudiate conservation as a policy because it is both impractical and immoral.
It is impractical because it does not address the real cause of the problem--government regulations and environmentalist restrictions that stifle energy producers. It is immoral because conservation repudiates the American Dream.
The United States became great because it embodied a moral code of rational self-interest, the principle that men should be left free to create abundance in pursuit of their own happiness. The country grew to immense prosperity because it rejected the Dark Ages code of self-sacrifice and deprivation. Americans properly prize success, wealth and happiness, not self-denial, poverty and suffering. We have become the most affluent country in history because we know that great producers of wealth like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates--not apostles of suffering like Mother Theresa--are mankind's real heroes.
The American Dream of abundance and the unqualified moral right to enjoy it resulted in the full flowering of the Industrial Revolution. In 1700, prior to the development of capitalism, no one could have predicted the creation of the electric light, the telephone, radio and television, the airplane, organ transplant surgery--or the myriad other modern devices and methods that enrich our lives. But the freedom provided by the capitalist system liberates man to employ his most valuable resource: his mind. When men are free to think, produce and enjoy life, they create prosperity.
If, however, political leaders at the dawn of the capitalist revolution had promoted conservation and self-denial, rather than the freedom to produce, then the coal, oil, steel and other industries would not have been created, and the United States would not enjoy the wealth it does today.
Given the same freedom to innovate and profit, energy producers today would construct nuclear and hydroelectric power plants, develop oil in both the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf, and exploit the country's huge natural gas supplies, such as the 39 trillion cubic feet of gas in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Thus, what Bush, Congress and the State of California should do is lift all socialist and environmentalist regulations shackling producers and establish a free market in the energy industry. Such a policy would result in a virtually unlimited supply of U.S. energy, thus greatly reducing its cost.
It cannot be sufficiently stressed that it is not coal or iron or oil that is the indispensable resource, but man's reasoning mind. Substitutes have been and always will be created for the others--such as fiber optic cables, made from ordinary sand, replacing copper wire in telephone lines. But there is no alternative to rational thought.
Even in the short term, the free market is the only practical way to deal with fluctuations in supply and demand. When supply of a good is scarce (in this case because of the government regulations restricting energy production), its price must be allowed to rise, which will lead men to consume less of it. They do so out of self-interest, in order to save money. Further, the higher price motivates businessmen to produce more of it and/or leads innovators to develop substitutes, e.g., oil for coal in the late-19th century and nuclear for fossil fuels in the 20th. When individuals are left free to pursue their self-interest, they will be motivated to incessantly produce more, continually raising man's standard of living.
Pleas for conservation demand that Americans make do with less when it is eminently possible for them to have more. As such, conservation represents an unconscionable rejection of the moral code that made America great. If we establish a free market, our most innovative thinkers will create new technologies and inventions that will make such historic American advances as oil, automobiles, jet travel, the personal computer and the Internet pale in comparison. Our actual choice is the medieval code of self-denial and suffering or the true meaning of the American Dream: freedom and prosperity.
Andrew Bernstein, author of The Capitalist Manifesto, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
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